Scripture, Songs and Sacraments
That singular act of forgiveness was more catalytic for our congregation than human words can explain. Almost immediately, the executive team and I became obsessed with bringing health to our body, one hurting heart at a time. “If it doesn’t help to heal our hearts,” I remember saying to the other pastors on staff, “then for now, it’s going to get scrapped.” In a church our size, you pick up some fluff along the way—big-ticket productions, excessive conferences, budget-draining ministries, initiatives whose time has come and gone. Given what we’d gone through, my “fluff tolerance” was nil. “We will focus with laserlike intensity on the preaching of God’s Word,” I said, “on singing our way back to wholeness and on the receiving of Communion, so that we remember God’s great gift.”
Scripture, songs and sacraments—if it didn’t support one of our three stripped-down objectives, it was out, simple as that. We needed to heal from our pain as thoroughly as possible so that we could help others find healing too.
As we went back to the basics that have been honored through the ages in churches on every continent and in communities both large and small, we saw our faith—and our ministry—expand. The promise I made to New Life was that we would be a safe place where each of us could find restoration, and that we would not forsake the mission to which we were first called. Since the church’s beginnings, New Life has been driven by a singular purpose, which is to be in the city for the sake of the city. And perhaps the most surprising byproduct of all of our suffering was that once we got our collective feet back under us, we were better equipped than we’d ever been to bring that vision to life.
To those in our city who were homeless and friendless and hungry and cold, to those who were addicted and angry and despondent and sick, to those who needed help and needed hope and needed strength and needed care, we could say without equivocation, “You’re hurting? So were we. We know pain. We know scandal. We know violence. We know loss. But we found this place where healing can occur, and astoundingly, we’re getting healed.”
Our empathy levels went through the roof as we welcomed other broken hearts into our fold. “You are at home here,” we would tell them. “You are safe, and you are loved.”
The promise that the elders and I made to New Life during the months following that tragic December day was that if they would help us alleviate our debt load, then we would convert those dollars into real, tangible help for those in our city who were hurting most. “Once we lighten this burden,” I assured our congregation, “we can go lighten weightier burdens still.” Admittedly, some people didn’t believe me, the pain of the experience still way too raw. But I knew in my gut this was the right course to take. I knew our church needed to walk by faith.
And was it ever a faith journey for us. At the time of the myriad conversations that preceded that announcement to the congregation, we elders hashed through this decision regarding whether to serve our city while we were still in debt. I quoted Proverbs 19:17 so often that I may as well have had it tattooed across my face: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,” I’d declare, “and God will reward them for what they have done. God will reward us as we help our city!” I’d say, surer of this thing than of anything I’d ever been sure of before. Even so, the road was long.
By then, our church had already paid down the debt by $5 million—from $26 million to $21 million—but we had quite a mountain still to climb. To add insult to injury, the timeframe was 2009 and 2010 when the economy was free-falling. Two of our elders own their own businesses and were as close to bankruptcy as a person could get. As a team, we’d make our petition to God—that our church would serve well as we got out of debt—even as those men wondered if they’d still be afloat personally the very next day. Still, they declared something I’ll carry with me the rest of my life: “If we’re going to go down, let’s go down faithful.” Faith takes us places we can’t access on our own; I saw that in spades with those men.
In addition to declaring what we would focus on—the veracity of the Scriptures, the power of those anthems of praise, the beauty of the Lord’s table, the simplicity of ministry we loved—as a staff we quit focusing on all else. For us, this meant no more tracking numbers and attendance—no more emphasizing how many, how much. Our premise was, “If we obsess over quality while we’re healing here, quantity will take care of itself.” And the thinking had a ripple effect: The more our own stance stabilized, the more committed we became to steadying another in our midst. Once the women’s clinic was operational, for instance, we would view each patient not as a number to be tallied, but as a soul to be well-stewarded for God. In short order, women were receiving not only the highest level of medical care possible, but also spiritual guidance, the care of friends and heartfelt prayer.
When Mary’s Home opened, the women and children who came to us off the streets weren’t a sum on someone’s spreadsheet; they were divine appointments from God.
As the other pastors and I met men, women and kids each month who were new to our fellowship, and in some cases also new to town, we viewed them not as “prospective giving units,” but as fellow sojourners in need of care. We intentionally learned their stories. We sorted out their distinct pockets of pain. We connected them to appropriate ministries. And we taught them how to use their struggle for good. I remember sitting in the early-morning prayer meetings that occurred almost daily in the prayer center on our campus and looking around the room at the godly, capable people who were determined to walk through that fire. And as healing came to us, one by one, together we knew that we could.
New Life Rises
Across the decade that has passed, I have heard from hundreds of pastors from every corner of the world, each one looking for healing too. Male pastors, female pastors, young pastors, old pastors, black pastors, white pastors, denominational pastors, independent pastors—all with the same question on their lips: “Where can I find hope again when there’s no hope to be found?”
These were leaders who were discouraged, leaders who were hurting, leaders whose churches aren’t on this magazine’s lists. And to a person, they believed in their heart of hearts that their best days had come and gone. What were they supposed to do now, they wondered—shrug their shoulders and shut their doors?
In person and by phone, via email and sometimes by text, I’d convey the very same news: “Take whatever time you need in order to heal, and then take that healing to those who still hurt.” New Life’s recovery to a ministry of real impact didn’t come about as a result of some fancy leadership model or church-growth strategy or charismatic personality up on the stage. It came about as a result of one person at a time getting healthy and then spreading health. It came about as a group of wounded people made the brave decision to stay steady, to love one another, to forgive one another, to overlook one another’s faults and to encourage one another in this thing called faith.
“Your story of suffering will foster greater empathy in you,” I told those pastors, “if you’ll steward the good times as well as the bad. You be faithful to what you’re called to do, and let God show himself faithful to use your pain for good.”
Not long ago, I was visiting with my friend Bishop Thomas Muthee in his house in Kiambu, Kenya, where he founded Word of Faith Church. We were taking a walk along his property when we came to a graveyard right there by his home. “My first wife died in a carjacking,” he said, “and she is buried here.”
Bishop Muthee then said, “My second wife died from complications of an illness, and she is buried here too.”
I studied my friend’s face as he studied the ground beneath our feet. “So many tears this patch of earth has absorbed,” he said, his head shaking in reflexive disbelief. “And yet, look—look there. Such life, here so close! I can’t keep up with so much life.”
I turned away from the graveyard to find an outright orchard there at my back. Avocado trees bursting with goodness, mango trees so weighed down by fat, fresh fruit that I thought their limbs would snap in two. In just these few acres existed great flourishing and great loss—the reality of having lost much alongside the reality of things made new.
I sat with that scene for several minutes, making sure it seeped down deep into my heart. It was a perfect picture of what we’d been through at New Life. In this world, we do find suffering, and yet it’s this world that has been overcome. That orchard—it’s a promise of new life unfolding, of growth springing forth from the ground that bore pain.
Brady Boyd, an Outreach magazine consulting editor, is the senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the author of several books, including Speak Life: Restoring Healthy Communication in How You Think, Talk, and Pray (David C Cook, 2016).